Historian Highlight is a new series sharing the research experiences of historians in the History Faculty in Cambridge. We ask students how they came to research their topic, their favourite archival find, as well as the best (and worst) advice they’ve received as academics in training. History is all about how we tell stories – this series looks at the stories we have to tell as graduate students researching in unprecedented times. In the second post in the series, George Severs explains his research into the history of HIV/AIDS activism in England in the late twentieth century.Read more
Posts from the ‘Doing history in public’ Category
By Kate McGregor (@ks_mcgregor)
David Lyndsay is perhaps Scotland’s best, but least well known, poet and playwright. Yet his work both reflects the vibrant culture of early modern Scotland and the deeply political ramifications drama could have during this period. One could imagine that the performance of a play written by Lyndsay was an eagerly anticipated event. The Great Hall of Linlithgow Palace was in January 1540 packed with the lairds and ladies of the Scottish court. With a fire crackling, the sights and smells of the Christmas season all around, a hush would surely have descended on the hall for the centre piece entertainment by Lyndsay.Read more
By Rebecca Goldsmith (@rebeccagold123)
The desire to recover ‘lost voices’ in the archives is by no means a new impulse. It has underpinned entire fields and ‘turns’ in the historical discipline. Nevertheless, there is something new in the recent attempts made by scholars in modern British history to recover the ‘vernacular’. Historians spanning Jon Lawrence, Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and David Cowan have turned to the unpublished field notes of twentieth-century social-science, attempting to ‘re-use’ the archived testimony of individuals interviewed within past research encounters to answer new questions. These field notes offer a unique means of accessing the thoughts and feelings of ordinary people in the past. My own research into the popular political culture surrounding the 1945 general election uses this material to present a vernacular, grassroots account of Britain’s social democracy.Read more
On January 13 2021 the Irish Taoiseach Michéal Martin made a public apology to the survivors of mother and baby homes. ‘It is the duty of a republic’ he said, ‘to accept parts of our history which are deeply uncomfortable’. Martin’s predecessors made similar apologies. In May 1999, then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern apologised to victims of Industrial Schools, offering ‘a sincere and long overdue apology…for our collective failure to intervene’. In February 2013, Enda Kenny apologised to victims of Magdalen Laundries; ‘I, as Taoiseach, on behalf of the State, the government, and our citizens deeply regret and apologise unreservedly to all those women for the hurt that was done to them’. However, for many, these institutions are not simply a thing of the past; their legacy, and the actions of the current government, continue to impact negatively on the lives of survivors.Read more
By Rory Bannerman (@BannermanRory)
If there is a work of sociology that has held more attention, generated more discussion, and created more controversy than any other, it is Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Released in 1905, its premise is based on Weber’s observation that Protestants, in particular Calvinists, appear to be more economically prosperous than their Catholic counterparts. This looked to be the case at both the individual and national levels. His research set out to find out if there was an element in Protestant thinking that was uniquely compatible with engaging in capitalism that would explain this. Read more
By Weiao Xing (@WeiaoX)
In early January 2020, a newsletter disclosed an unknown pneumonia spreading through Wuhan, China.[i] This understated report failed to lade me with extreme anxiety on an otherwise ordinary day in Cambridge. Many of my peers did not anticipate any interruption to our annual schedule of international trips, but lockdowns and travel restrictions were looming. The infectious virus, later named as COVID-19, fermented an ongoing crisis that enveloped the world within months. It marks an unusual epoch when the globalised world has suddenly become suspended with immobility.Read more
By George Pliotis (@gpliotis)
How do we picture ancient Romans? In the case of Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c.4BC-65AD), eminent littérateur and statesman of his day, we have no contemporary depiction; but something about this bust (which most likely dates to the Hellenistic period) has made it a persistently popular visualisation since the end of the 16th century.
The story seems to have begun with the Italian antiquarian Fulvio Orsini, who included an image of the bust in his 1598 Imagines Illustrium and, despite its lack of authentic inscription, christened it “Seneca”. His justification was that the figure resembled an image in a Roman contorniate (a kind of medallion) that allegedly bore an inscription of Seneca’s name. However, no record of that contorniate remains. We may therefore suspect that Orsini’s (mis)identification was a consequence of the way the bust manifests an appealing image of Seneca: beyond resembling the “senile body” mentioned by Tacitus, this elderly, ascetic figure, haggard but still possessing an intense gaze, capures much of what we want to see when we read Seneca — the sexagenerian castigator of vice, exhorter to the life of Stoic simplicity, and sage counsel to the wayward emperor Nero.
Such idealisations are hard to shrug. Today, Seneca has proved a popular figure amid interest in mindfulness and self-help, often presented as a voice of ancient wisdom in a way that takes us back to the wizened look of this “Pseudo-Seneca”: not for nothing will you still find that very image attached to his name. “False” or not, it is an image that’ll be with us for some time.
Campbell R. (ed., tr.), Seneca: Letters from a Stoic (Penguin: 2004).
Strandman, B., “The Pseudo-Seneca Problem”, Konsthistorisk tindskrift/ Journal of Art History 19.1-4 (1950), pp.53-93.
Image: Courtesy of the Museum of Classical Archaeology, Faculty of Classics, Cambridge: https://museum.classics.cam.ac.uk/collections/casts/seneca-so-called.
By Tamara Fernando (@TamaraFernando3)
Before the 1920s, visual renderings of the seafloor largely relied on drawings and engravings. This was true even in places where bodies routinely inhabited the underwater, such as the pearl fisheries of Ceylon. Here, photography did play a role: on the shore and on the decks of colonial steamers, British administrators and elite local and European visitors used photography as a tool of art, surveillance, documentation and science.
In the early twentieth century, Ceylon was a laboratory for the biology of the tropical seas. This photograph here, for instance, was made over the course of a of a Royal Society sponsored investigation into the conditions of the fisheries. In one trawl-netting exercise to deduce which fish fed on pearl-bearing oysters, a suckerfish or remora was brought up. The diver in the photograph is unnamed, and the composition is staged, with the fish placed deliberately on the man’s back to attest to its suction-generating maw. The image is a testament to both direct and indirect violence wrought under colonialism on environments and bodies. But it also invokes a space between the sea and land: a fish out of water, a body that was often submerged within it; a place within photography’s reach which gestured also at spaces that—at this point in time—still lay beyond it.
Image credits: Report to the Government of Ceylon on the Pearl Oyster Fisheries in the Gulf of Mannar (London, 1903), vol. I, 65.
By Xinyi Wen (@HPSWarburgian)
Red, umber, carmine, massicot yellow, ultramarine… in a 15×15 inches humble drawer, 63 kinds of pigments constituted a vibrant, colourful world. Each pigment was held in a labelled paper box lining inside the wooden grid, indicating these ingredients’ mobility and their flexibility of spatial arrangement. This drawer, together with other 28 counterparts of seeds, stones, fruits, roots, and animal parts, made up the cabinet of John Francis Vigani (c. 1650–1712), the first Professor of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge.Read more
By Weiao Xing (@WeiaoX)
Basking in the sacred light, the Virgin Mary is greeted by Gabriel in an oriental wooden house ornamented with delicate lines and patterns (fig. 1). This unique Annunciation, as one of the fifteen hybridised images, appeared in a seventeenth-century print for Chinese rosary prayers. Its source version was Evangelicae historiae imagines, which was published in 1593 (fig. 2). The Portuguese prelate João da Rocha (1565–1623) is believed to have ‘translated’ these copperplates into indigenous-inspired woodcuts in Nanjing, a vibrant city in East China. This endeavour was completed in around 1620, after the local persecution of Christians which erupted in 1616 when European missionaries were arrested and repatriated to Macao.Read more
By Miles Kempton (https://www.oocdtp.ac.uk/people/miles-kempton)
This image shows a chimpanzee painting; not an abstract portrait of a chimpanzee, but a painting by one. The artist was Congo (1954-64), a captive chimpanzee at London Zoo who in the late 1950s caused a scientific and artistic sensation with his uncanny aptitude for painting and drawing. Desmond Morris – zoologist, broadcaster, and author of the international bestseller The Naked Ape (1967) – was behind it all. Between 1956 and 1959, he made Congo the subject of a scientific-cum-artistic experiment into ‘the biology of art’. For Morris, Congo’s pictures were not mere ‘random scratchings’ but displayed the ‘germ… of visual patterning’.Read more
By Emily Rhodes (@elrhodes96)
In the early modern era, women had a direct way to contact their king or queen: a petition. Women could and did take their complaints and pleas to the highest authority in the realm. While the petition would go through various secretaries and court officials — such as Gervase Holles, Master of Requests of Charles II, whose entry book lists this petition — the monarch personally had to make the ultimate decision about the lives of even his neediest subjects.Read more
By Anna-Marie Pipalova
This sign, on a house on the main square of Hudcov, a village in the Sudetenland, announces that the house was in the property of Wenzl Pokorny-Renner, landlord. Further signs on the house state that it was the ‘Gasthaus zum Reichsadler’, the Inn of the Imperial Eagle. The continued presence of these German-language signs harks back to the bilingual nature of the Sudetenland before 1946, when its German population (estimated at around three million people) was expelled, and the territory became Czech-speaking.Read more
By Aoife O’Leary McNeice (@aolmcn)
The coast surrounding Cork Harbour is dappled with little holiday cottages. Ivy and gorse break through the flimsy plywood walls of these boxy bungalows, and paint flakes off to reveal the curious industrial origins of these summer homes. These bungalows started life in the Ford Motors Factory, which opened in Cork City in 1919, and manufactured Fordson Tractors.Read more
By Meg Roberts (@megeroberts)
Fancy some Regency-era cheese on toast? By the late eighteenth century, cheese toasters were all the rage among the British upper classes. The six removable trays in this particular toaster from the period could each hold a small slice of toast or bread, topped with cheese. To make the toast, hot water would first be poured into an opening in the stem of the handle until it filled the container underneath the six trays. As the heat quickly permeated the silver plate and copper interior (both excellent heat conductors), it would simultaneously melt the cheese and keep the toast warm.Read more
By Basil Bowdler (@BasilBowdler)
Playing cards were meant for much more than games in late seventeenth century England. They flourished as a medium for conveying political events and (mis)information. This particular pack, which was illustrated by Francis Barlow, details the ‘Popish Plot’ (1678-81): a fictitious conspiracy alleging that an extensive cabal of Catholics were plotting to assassinate Charles II and place his Catholic brother, James Duke of York, on the throne. The Plot detonated latent anti-Catholic paranoia in Restoration England and resulted in the greatest political crisis of Charles II’s reign. At least 22 alleged plotters were executed – the five of clubs depicts the hanging of five Jesuit priests. The country was brought to the brink of civil war and opposing ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’ parties began to crystallise in Parliament.Read more